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Religion Or Irreligion?

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By Abhinita Mohanty:

Religion, as any other philosophical concept or idea, is perceived in myriad ways and from a variety of vantage points. The contemporary word ‘Religion’ is very difficult to discern, although it has always been a subjective concept, and today it is becoming quite individualistic too. The extreme tirade of secularism that swept the post modern world changed the homogeneity of religion; it became more pluralistic and complex. When Marx commented on religion as‘opium’ for the masses, he must not have ever fathomed the amount of change that secularism would bring into the very concept of religion. Religion, I believe, must have been very valid for the people during his time as much as it is today and most non-marxist continue to see Marx as an iconoclast. I do not intend to endorse Marx’s ideas as a whole; but what I wish to say is that religion, as Marx perceived then, has a greater contemporary significance than it was during his time. Today, centuries later, his comments on religion seems to ring an alarming bell and is very much turning real every day. In an earlier era, religion used to be an effective means for social control and it reaffirmed the ideals of a homogeneous society. The difference between the religion that was practiced then and the way it is practice today has a lot of differences.

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Today, religion has been reduced to the level of rituals whereas earlier religion, as a practice, included both rituals and the implicit ideals within it. The pre modern societies were understandably never completely free of religious fanaticism and violence, but today, it has escalated instead of abetting as it was expected (since society moved into a more rational plane).The hatred and violence that was largely based on ethnicity and was sporadic has now become organized (terrorism) .It has become an international matter of concern affecting the lives of many people and their fates. This is the sheer outcome of practicing any form of religion merely as a ritual without any inherent norms. This is what I believe has made religion a ‘toxic intoxication’ that seeks to destroy every form of belief that is viewed as contradictory to the other form. I disagree though with the cynicism that Marx shows, almost a deep aversion towards religion. The reason why religion today is becoming like‘opium’ is not due to religion per se rather due to the way it is being recognized today. I have realized that what we call religion today lacks the true essence and only seems appealing on the outside. It largely lacks the normative ingredients. Gandhi said that religion is an indispensable part of society and no matter how technologically we advance we need religion, since ages it has always acted as a support system for the people. But Gandhi’s religion was quite different from what we see today.

By merely reducing our beliefs to a system of dos and don’ts, we have made it an institution based on rites and rules eroding its philosophical structure. This contemporary trend according to me is the sole cause of religious fundamentalism that is erupting almost everywhere in the world today. It is due to this reason that Marx’s proclaims on religion has become a real phenomena. Looking back on the issue of terrorism (or any other form of extremism) that I mentioned earlier, one becomes very obvious of the fact that it erupted due to loss in the normative pattern of religion. Another factor will also be pertinent here to mention; is a more recent phenomena of ‘secularism’ or to be apt ‘secular fundamentalism’ has led to such a change in the perception of religion. Secularism is viewed by many as a concept which seeks to eliminate religion from all spheres of public life, albeit, it only means equal treatment to all religions. When secularists tend to uproot religion in every visible form, they make a mistake in realizing that religion can be personal but never very private. Today, many secularists frown upon any ‘harmless’ display of religion (like festivals or wishing), so the religious hardliners have started a sort of ‘competition’ with the ‘secular fundamentalist’ to reaffirm their staunch faith. This silent form of desire to subordinate each other has led to many negative repercussions. Terrorism has now gripped almost the entire world. Terrorists are the living example of religious intoxication. Their religion being the opium has given rise to demonic crimes. Here, again a misconception of religion made them what they are and is making humanity suffer heart wrenching tragedies.

So, in the present, it can be asserted that the way Marx viewed religion is somewhat beginning to show itself practically with a more heightened intensity. I do not decline completely that religious intolerance was absent in pre modern era but I say that this has further accelerated today. In the various sectors where we have experienced advancement or  ‘modernity’are thought to have infringed every institutions. Then why in terms of religion have we become more primitive and orthodox? Ironically, it is this system of modernity which has distorted the very essence of religion (like the development of modern, extreme secularism). Mark Tully exactly says this in his book ‘India’s unending journey’.

The religions that the secularists fear are fundamentalist, yet ironically it is their own dogmatism that plays a role in creating the dogmatism that they fear. The world got warning of this with the Iranian revolution against the shah. The Iranian professor Ahmed Fardid coined the term ‘west-intoxication’ for poisoning and the pollution that the Iranians felt was afflicting them. Fearing what they saw as extreme materialism, many Iranians naturally took refuge in an extreme form of Islam”.

In India, the current battle is on between hardliners from almost all religions and those who can be called as the ‘secular fundamentalists’. This has led to a sharp polarization of identity leaving very little space for a middle path; it is this status quo in Indian politics that needs to be changed. Both of these groups simultaneously malign the concept of religion, the latter by negating its conception and by subtle minority appeasement and the former by appealing to people’s emotions and denouncing other religions. The problem with the masses is that they simply gape at the ramblings of priests, maulvis, rabbis or propagandists and define their religion in a half hazard manner, a sort of rummaging is done which leads to more entanglements and complexities. Demagogic politicians also often contribute.Most people never ever question, modify, discern or logically think about their ideas and beliefs. Religious hatred and hate speeches are cheered by many just because most people in India cannot find any other form of identity other than their religion and caste. By accepting everything unquestionably, they feel a part of their micro group social associations. In order to stop this, we need a means which will widen people’s sense of identity (like nationalism).The secular fundamentalists (a term which is of recent invention), frown upon against any public display of religion (and in India, it connotes a strong minority appeasement) but they fail to comprehend that this restrictive policy can actually urge people to cluster up even more within their intra group identities.

In the context of modern Indian when Jinnah reinforced the idea of ‘Pakistan’, they used the subtle force of religion to mobilize hatred and flare up violence. In India, the demolition of Babari Masjid can be called the greatest religious intoxication; the people involved went berserk with rage. It shows how intoxicated religion can do much harm to the harmonious fabric of a nation. Today, almost all the parties and politicians, have interwoven facts, myths, fictions, etc, to create their own religious legends. Many times, they have succeeded in mobilizing public opinion. With the onslaught of fast paced modernity in the country, the tendency remains to cling on to the sacred yearnings, which in itself is not the problem, rather trouble arrives when it is preached upon others.

What we define as religion today is, in fact, irreligion. The line between religion and irreligion is getting blurred. There is confusion all around as to what is religion? Today, when we analyze religion we give much importance to its explicit contents. Explicit contents are just the outer ones like symbols, eating habits, drinking habits, rituals etc. Explicit contents though have some importance, yet if we fail to understand the core implicit contents, then our religion is vague and worthless and irrational.

Now, we have been neglecting the core values of religion which are more or less universal in nature. Implicit stuff constitutes the real religion. They are the values and intrinsic goodness that religion teaches us. Today, we mostly look upon people who follow all the religious norms strictly, but what is forgotten is its universalistic principles .Religion is something that plays parts in uniting any society and at the same time it creates cleavages within societies. What I believe is that the institution of religion is creating more havoc than the concept of god. If one can associate with the concept of ‘god’ without getting himself or herself tagged into any religion, the problem will be solved.

Religion is something which can truly be learned through direct experience. There are religious advisors everywhere but ultimately it is the person who has to follow it in his or her own ways. You have to experience or feel your own religion. By learning to unlearn other’s interpretations of the texts one may be actually able to delve in. The only reason why we have so many extremists and hardliners is that Marx’s perception of religion is gathering momentum, due to fall in religious morals. We are, without a doubt, advancing fast in technical field but getting more and more primitive in religious fields. We are narrowing the entire concept of religion. This has led to chaos. Optimistically, I must conclude that both the religious ones and the secularists will understand the values of true religion and will make an effort to analyze them in a discerning manner .This will put a full stop to conflicting identities and contradictory ideologues.

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